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Annual festival commemorates 200th anniversary of Jane Austen's death

| Saturday, March 18, 2017, 9:00 p.m.
Men and women don their Regency era finery for Pittsburgh's Jane Austen Festival.
Michele Senko
Men and women don their Regency era finery for Pittsburgh's Jane Austen Festival.

Our appetite for Jane Austen in all things has not yet reached a saturation point.

Those of us who are frequent readers are drawn to the ever-growing collection of films, and those who are captivated by the films inevitably reach for the novels.

The spinoffs and satirized books and movies — with zombies, sea monsters, Valley girl teens and Bollywood casts — continue to catch attention. There are even a half-dozen video games in the mix.

For a novelist who worked in the early 1800s, Austen's longevity is astounding.

This year's annual Jane Austen Festival commemorates the 200th anniversary of her death in 1817.

“When people come to read her, they realize how witty she is, how timeless her characters are, and what a brilliant writer she was when you compare her to some of her contemporaries, who are fun to read, but are much more dated,” says Allison Thompson, president of the Pittsburgh chapter of the Jane Austen Society of North America. “I think she was the most brilliant novelist of English literature.”

The festival opens with a free screening of “The Jane Austen Book Club” on March 24 at the Frick Fine Arts Building in Oakland.

A few blocks away, the rest of the events will be held in the Twentieth Century Club, a beautiful building that echoes the Regency architecture of Austen's time. A full day of expert speakers will discuss a wide variety of background and observations on the Austen phenomenon. In between, breakout sessions include hand-sewing a ribbon pansy, the basics of English country dance and a reading from “Sanditon,” Austen's unfinished, final novel.

Vendors will sell wares throughout the day at Ford's Regency Emporium. Jane Austen Books will offer guides from literary criticism to Austen-inspired children's titles, plus T-shirts and exclusive pieces from the gift shop at Jane Austen's House Museum in Chawton, England, include greeting cards, book marks and tote bags.

Some members appear in costume at the festival. For those who lack appropriate fashion, Pittsburgh Historical Costume Society will offer a selection of historical clothing and accessories for the Regency Era woman, including hats, gloves, reticules, fans and shoe ornaments. Looking for a gown for the evening's ball? It can be hemmed on-site.

There's even a line of Jane Austen-inspired soaps from Asana Soaps.

The day's events lead to a big finish: an English Country Dance Assembly, an event most of Austen's characters would have been thrilled to attend. Many dress up for the evening.

“It's going to be fabulous in that two-story ballroom,” says Thompson of Squirrel Hill. She will be calling the dance, which we are assured is quite simple to follow. “The tunes are charming and light and lively,” with live music played by Amaryllis.

“You don't need to be afraid,” she says. “Everyone thinks, ‘Oh, I'll mess up just like Mr. Collins.' But I start very slowly and we incorporate steps slowly. … So it's really quite manageable.”

But for all the hoopla and silliness, the interest in Jane Austen returns to her novels.

“Different ages want different things out of an author, and the ones that survive century after century can be remolded in our imaginations into these different forms,” says Sayre Greenfield, a professor of English at University of Pittsburgh, Greensburg. “One aspect comes out in one era, and one in another era.”

Today, we tend to focus on the romantic leads of the books, probably because of the compression of squeezing entire novels into two-hour films, Greenfield says. During her time, Austen's books were seen more as ensemble pieces, with minor characters as the comic sidekicks. Consider Mr. Collins in “Pride and Prejudice,” Mr. Woodhouse in “Emma” or Mrs. Norris “Mansfield Park.”

“Who pays attention to Mrs. Norris nowadays?” he asks. “Well, Mrs. Norris got a great deal of attention ­— the wonderful comic creation of Jane Austen. She was viewed as more of a comic writer and not so much as a romance writer in the 19th century.”

Eventually, those reading her work changed how they viewed it. The stories didn't change, but readers' perceptions changed.

“That's actually one of the markers of a classic,” says Linda Troost, professor of English at Washington & Jefferson College. ”Even though time passes, people keep reading the book — even though they won't read them in the same way. Because different things are important at different times. Books that are not classics are books that cannot be adapted to a different time or audience. They are too narrowly prescribed for one time or one audience.”

Austen's flexibility as a writer of classic tales continues with her younger readers. A recently formed Jane Austen book club at Oakland Catholic High School will attend the festival.

On the college level, Greenfield says, “I have never had any trouble filling a class for Jane Austen.” In his last class, about a third of the students were male.

Now that's staying power!

Those who cannot make this year's festival are reminded they can sign up for the regional Jane Austen club's mailing list.

“We're quite active and tend to have six to eight events September through May with a variety of price points,” Thomson says.

Sally Quinn is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

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